Sermon for Pentecost 5 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Back in the 70’s, comedian Flip Wilson popularized the now ubiquitous excuse “the devil made me do it.” The joke, of course, is that it’s a lame excuse. “The devil made me do it” will not hold up in court or in a meeting with your supervisor at work, and I’ve discovered that by the time I was in high school it no longer amused my parents, much less convince them that staying out past curfew could be excused.

A certain way of reading Paul in today’s epistle might, however, strike us as analogous to Wilson’s excuse. “It is no longer I that do it,” Paul says of his own disobedience, “but sin that dwells within me.” Far from being an excuse, however, St. Paul is presenting a rather subtle account of moral and immoral action. The passage is a bit confusing, because of the terms Paul uses: sin, law, flesh, mind. These are all terms with complex, nuanced definitions for Paul, and it will benefit us to spend a bit of time unpacking them. You will, I hope, excuse a bit of theologizing in today’s sermon. The matter at hand is more than academic; it ultimately gets at how we, as Christians, are called to make moral choices so it seems worth a bit of investigation.

First, the concept of law is important for Paul, and we can understand why. He was a Pharisee, and it was the job of Pharisees to be well-versed in the Torah, the law of God as presented in the first five books of the bible. That is to say, Paul’s whole business, his bread and butter, before he became a Christian was to know every obscure regulation from those bits of the Old Testament we hardly ever read in church. There are, in fact, 613 laws in those bits of the bible, and they cover everything from obvious moral imperatives (e.g. not to commit murder) to tax codes and regulations on how to worship in the temple. We know a few of them by common knowledge—like the prohibition against pork and shellfish—but the particulars really get very complex, and Pharisees were concerned with regulating behavior so that all were above reproach. This often meant making rules which might strike us as overly-conscientious to avoid even the possibility of offense. This tradition is, interestingly, alive and well in Orthodox Judaism today. I recall during college, for example, opening a Jewish friend’s umbrella one rainy Friday evening so that he could be certain not the violate the prohibition against building a shelter on the Sabbath.

All of this serves as background to Paul’s relationship to law. He is not what in fancy theological terms we call an antinomian. That is to say, he is not content to say that God’s Grace is such that it entirely exempts us from following certain laws. The law, including those 613 obscure regulations, was given by God and is, thus, good. This means we cannot simply reject the law, even the apparently weird laws we don’t follow like not eating lobster. We cannot say they were simply created by man in a benighted time who didn’t really get God. The law is from God, but our relationship to it is essentially different under the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. We have, in other words, a transformed relationship to the law.

Because we are human, because we are fallen, this new relationship to the law is in some sense affected by sin. Sin is another of those technical terms Paul uses, and it relates to the other two technical terms: flesh and mind. Sin, here, is actually the Greek word ͑αμαρτια, which literally means “missing the mark”. It is the word that the ancient Greeks would have used of an archer who couldn’t shoot the bullseye. But in today’s reading, Paul personifies sin. It is more than an occurrence of missing the mark; it is something which dwells within us, endowing us with an almost unavoidable tendency to err. It is not that “the devil makes us do it”, it is that our very nature is such that it leads us to mess up. It is this nature which Paul calls flesh.

We must be very careful with this term, though. It is flesh not body. For those interested in the Greek, it is σαρκς not σωμα. Our bodies are gifts from God, who made them perfect at Creation and who gave His son a real body not only when he was born but when he was raised from the dead. This is why John makes such a big deal of the resurrected Christ eating and drinking and being physically touched by Thomas. Such will be our state after the resurrection. As we say in the Apostles Creed “we believe in the resurrection of the body” not “in the resurrection of disembodied ghosts”.

Anyway, the biblical view is that bodies are good things. It is flesh, or the tendency to sin which is a bad thing. It is the flesh which Paul explains later in his letter to the Romans that demands the gratification of desires which have no bearing on our livelihood, inordinate desires which go well beyond the normal needs and creature-comforts by demanding that which benefits us to the detriment of others: that is, greed and lust and gluttony and pride. Ultimately, the law (all 613 regulations) was given as a means to avoid these fleshly desired.

The New Covenant is in some ways more difficult because in place of all these laws, a mere two are given to dissuade us from falling victim to the flesh: love God and love your neighbors. It is more difficult because instead of following a bunch of clear rules, we have to reckon how all the choices in our life meet or fail to meet these two commandments.

And that is where the mind comes in. Again, this is a technical term, and it does not mean reason. I have found in my own life that often reason leads to sin as much as being irrational. This might sound a bit counterintuitive, so let me explain. Reason is a gift from God, just like our bodies, but like our bodies it can be taken over by what Paul calls the flesh. Whereas the needs of the body can be perverted by the flesh into inordinate desires, as I’ve already mentioned, human reason can be perverted by the flesh to justify just about anything. This is what we call rationalization. Herman Melville, in his novella Billy Budd, wrote of “conscience being but the lawyer to [our] will.” How often do we knowingly do what we ought not to do after convincing ourselves that we are justified in the offense? In Paradise Lost, Milton goes so far as to suggest that Adam and Eve’s transgression may have come after such a rationalization, and takes us through several lines in which Eve convinces herself that God really meant for her to eat the fruit.

So, reason has the potential to lead us astray just as it has the potential to lead us down the right path. So what is the “law of the mind” which Paul says does battle with the “law of the flesh”. We find the answer when we look elsewhere in Paul’s writings. In First Corinthians, Paul explains that discerning God’s will in our lives is possible because “we have the mind of Christ.” In Philippians he urges his followers to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Later in Romans, Paul says, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Doing what God demands of us is dependent on us conforming our minds to that of Our Lord.

How in heavens name are we to do that? If I knew the answer entirely, I’d be a much less selfish, struggling person than I am. I believe, however, that I know how to start. It seems to me that we begin the process of “conforming our minds” and growing “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” as Paul put it to the Ephesians, through the hard work of authentic prayer. Prayer is nothing less than participating in the work of Christ which began on His sojourn in the wilderness and found its consummation in the prayer He offered on the cross for our salvation. It matters less how one prays (though the prayer book offers an excellent model for daily prayer). A daily practice of thanksgiving, praise, intercession, and bible study should be central; and our weekly observance of the Holy Communion serves to bind our lives even more closely to that of our Savior. Whatever the method, though, the practice of prayer has an evident impact on how we live and militates against the assault of “the world, the flesh, and the devil” (to take a phrase from the prayerbook). We will never reach perfection, which Paul knew painfully well. “[We] do not do what [we] want, but [we] do the very thing we hate”, and this will remain a constant struggle. But “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” that in spite of the fact that sometimes we err, God’s Grace is infinite and His forgiveness waits only upon our reception of the same.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 3 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Because of my vocation, my father likes to send me gifts of an ironical religious nature from time to time, usually gifts that make some sort of joke about reformed theology to push my Anglo-Catholic buttons. Just last week I received this bag of Calvinist coffee beans, which claims to be “the coffee that chooses you” – a riff on the doctrine of predestination. This happens to be the “Total Depravity Blend” – a reference to the first point of classical Calvinism – because, of course, “men prefer the dark roast.” I brought it to the pulpit, not just for show-and-tell, but because it’s whole bean and, in the process of simplifying my life a couple years ago I got rid of my coffee grinder and don’t want a new one- so, I’m going to have a little competition- whoever can name which of Anglicanism’s 39 Articles of religion spells out our historical view of Original Sin and depravity will receive this pound of coffee with my compliments. You can just look in the back of the prayerbook for the answer, preferably after church rather than right now.

Anyway, my dad once gave me a similar gift he had found online which I think was a bit more clever than the coffee. it looked like a driver’s license, but it had Martin Luther’s picture on it, and promised license to “sin boldly.” I think I was in college at the time, so it makes the fact that my dad gave this to me as a gift all the more inscrutable.

In a letter to his partner in the cause of Reformation, Phillip Melancthon, Martin Luther wrote the following:

“If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and sin boldly.”

Do we, then, have a license to sin boldly, knowing that we have freedom in Christ, that we have been and will be forgiven? I don’t think so, but why not? There’s a word that we don’t use too much anymore, sadly, related to license- licentiousness. It’s a word Paul uses on a couple of occasions, and it just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it. It means acting as if one has license (that is- permission) to sin. It may seem odd to us, but whether or not we had such license was really a serious theological problem in the Early Church and beyond. It may be even today. If one’s view of salvation lets one do whatever one wants to do so long as one shows contrition before dropping dead (and a lot of people have this view) then it seems that we do have a license to sin.

In this morning’s Epistle, St. Paul gives us the counterargument:

Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?  By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.  For whoever has died is freed from sin.

There’s a lot going on there, so let’s break it down. First, Paul poses the question which the Lutheran license seems to implicitly suggest. If God’s Grace is the greatest gift we have and that Grace is made manifest in the forgiveness of sin (both Original Sin and particular sins) then doesn’t more sinning mean God’s Grace becomes even more manifest? Think of it this way. A sin is like the dollar bill we slide into the celestial vending machine. We punch the button on the machine by praying for forgiveness and out comes a delicious, ice cold Coca-Cola of God’s Grace. Now this isn’t how Grace and forgiveness work, but a lot of us fall into the habit of thinking that it is and apparently the Romans to whom Paul was writing thought so, too.

Paul corrects this misunderstanding by saying that we have died to sin in Baptism and thus ought to live the risen life of righteousness. Paul Calls this death to sin freedom. And here is the big distinction- the distinction between freedom and license. We are free from the grip of sin and from the law, but it does not mean we’ve been given license to do whatever we want. Rather we have the freedom to do what we ought, without a bunch of laws but with our conscience and the direction of the Holy Spirit working in us.

It does get a bit more complicated, though. A chapter later in Romans (in a lesson we’ll hear in a couple of weeks) Paul writes with regard to his own sins:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

This seems to contradict what Paul wrote in this morning’s Epistle, but I think it’s more a matter of complexity than contradiction. We are in a very real sense free from sin, but in another sense we are still bound by it. We are baptized people, cleansed from the stain of Original Sin, but we still live in a broken, fallen world and our human nature can easily fall back into the old patterns of pride and envy and wrath and all those other deadly sins. We are free to be wicked just as we are free to be righteous, and the former seems so often to be the path of least resistance.

Here, Luther might have actually been on to something. He didn’t stop his letter to Melancthon with “sin boldly,” but went on thus:

“Sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter, are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”

I don’t think Luther was encouraging licentiousness, giving permission to sin, but rather was acknowledging that we can’t keep from sinning because we live in a sin-sick world. We can either be crippled by scrupulosity- the debilitating fear of messing up- or we can go through our lives boldly, knowing that we’ll slip up, but also trusting that the love of God in Christ Jesus will save us from ourselves and bring us to that place where righteousness and justice are easier than wickedness and rebellion. We do not do what we want to do, but that doesn’t mean we can either give up trying or lock ourselves up lest temptation find us. We may continue to sin, but we also have the freedom to love, and if we’re afraid to act we’ll miss the opportunity to be vessels of God’s love. So, don’t use your freedom to rage against God’s plan, but know that when you do you also have the freedom to repent, to believe, and to love God and each other with more vigor.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 2 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of the things I love about being a priest is that my peculiar manner of dress alerts the public to my vocation, leading to some interesting conversations with strangers. Please understand, I’m not saying this ironically. There are differing views among my colleagues, and I don’t fault anybody who for their own sanity decides to get on a flight or go out to dinner without their dog collar announcing their vocation to the world. When it gets humid with temperatures into the 90’s I sometimes make a similar decision (though that has less to do with wanting to go in cognito and more to do with my stubborn refusal to wear clericals that have short sleeves or are in any color other than black). In truth, I relish those conversations with people who are bold enough to engage in religious repartee, particularly as a rebellion against my upbringing, in which I was frequently reminded that such conversations are impolite in public.

Anyway, one of the most peculiar conversations I’ve had along these lines was with a fellow on a bus who asked me, after confirming that I was, indeed, a clergyman what my favorite book of the bible was. This is a surprisingly hard question for me, because the answer is always changing depending on where I am in my own spiritual life and what I’ve been reading, but I think I said something like “either John’s Gospel or the Epistle of James or else Tobit because it’s just such a fun, wacky adventure story.” I quickly learned that the fellow had really asked me because he wanted to share his own answer to the question, which was fine with me, of course. He said something like “my favorite book of the Bible is Romans, because it’s simple enough for a child to understand.”

Now, much can be said of the Epistle to the Romans. It’s a brilliant work of verbal artistry, combining the best of Greek rhetoric and Jewish Midrash (a style of rabbinical biblical interpretation). It’s a magisterial treatise on the nature of Christ and the atonement. It is, I believe, the most important summation of the Gospel message outside the very words our Lord spoke and (over the last half millennium) the most misunderstood book of the New Testament, with the possible exception of John’s Apocalypse. But “simple enough for a child to understand” is not the one I had heard.

So, all that said, the lectionary has appointed passages from the Letter to the Romans to be read as the Epistle for Mass for the next three months, and I intend on doing something I’ve not done in all my eight years of ordained ministry or my half-decade of lay-preaching before that- namely, a sermon series. I want over the course of the summer to really focus in on this important book of the Bible. There will, no doubt, be much worth explicating in the Old Testament and Gospel lessons over the same period. I would encourage those who can to make an effort to attend our Monday evening bible study to cover those topics, as we commit on Sundays to digging in to St. Paul’s magnum opus and gaining an appreciation of what it has to say to us today.

First, let’s get up to speed on both the occasion of Paul’s letter (found in the two concluding chapters of the Epistle which are omitted from the lectionary) and his argument in the four chapters which precede this morning’s Epistle- lessons we missed based on that movable feast of Easter falling a couple of weeks later this year than it could have done.

Unlike Paul’s letters to churches in Greece and Asia, the Epistle to the Romans is not occasioned by a controversy in a church which the Apostle himself had founded. The Christians in Rome no doubt began within the large Jewish expatriate community which both Cicero and Philo tell us was somewhat insular and consisted largely of the descendants of slaves brought to the imperial capitol a century earlier by Pompey. Now by the Christian era, these Jews had been freed and enfranchised, but imagine the communal narrative and corporate sense of identity if your grand-parents and great-grand-parents had been marched into Rome in chains by this foreign, pagan general who, if contemporary sources are to be believed, donned Alexander the Great’s cloak before entering the city. A new oppressor taking on the guise of a previous oppressor, would stick with you well after emancipation- even a couple generations after. And though you would have later been given (according to Tacitus) what amounted to religious freedom in 1st Century Rome, you were still reckoned superstitious by the majority and you lived in tenements in the Trastavere and you stayed well clear of the Senate and the baths and the newly constructed Colliseum.

So, one would assume this community saw non-Jewish Romans as the enemy. Yet, by the time Paul was writing to the Christians in Rome, the parts of this Jewish community who had come to follow Jesus had astonishingly integrated Gentile believers into their number, realizing the most difficult aspect of Paul’s unique mission before he had even written you a letter, much less come to visit. This much is clear from Paul’s letter. How did they get to that point?

It is possible that by the time this letter was written (the mid-50’s A.D.), Peter had made it to Rome, became bishop, and, having already been chastened by Paul regarding the universality of the Gospel, had encouraged this integration himself. I find this unlikely, though, since Paul sends greetings to a few dozen named Roman Christians in his letter but doesn’t include Peter. It would be as if I had written a letter to all the Episcopalians in Cleveland and greeted the Dean of the Cathedral and all the rectors and curates and churchwardens of all the parishes in the city and forgot to greet Bishop Hollingsworth.

I don’t know how precisely these first Roman Christians had managed this difficult task of integration when they established their church in a context in which said task should have been more difficult than any other city in the known world except to blame the Holy Spirit, and perhaps it is precisely because of this seemingly miraculous turn of events that Paul deigns to send his most fulsome account of the nature of the Gospel to the Christians in Rome, whom he has never met but whom he trusts enough to try to establish as his base of operations for a mission to Spain,a a trip which would never take place because of the martyrdom which cut his ministry short.

Now, to the text itself, and where Paul picks up his argument in the fifth chapter of the letter. Paul opens the letter by reiterating his apostolic bona fides, acknowledging Christ’s identity as Son of God and Son of David, and demanding what he calls “the obedience of faith” a concept to which we shall return shortly. He proceeds to posit “the righteousness of God” as the basis of his theological system and that it functions εκ πιστεως εις πιστιν- that is, through or from faith for faith. This he then contrasts with human depravity of all sorts- disobedience to parents, boastfulness, judgmentalness, murder.

There is here an excursus on sexual immorality, the quoting of which has become all the rage in our current culture wars, more, I think, as a function of our own modern obsession with sex than of the importance Paul gives it in the larger argument. I’ve said to some of you that Paul’s denunciation here has more to do with the sexual violence and abuse taking place in Roman bathhouses which his Roman audience would have been all too familiar with than any contemporary controversies that have sometimes well-meaning if usually morally-panicked people clutching their pearls and locking up their wedding cakes. Significantly, there is a particular sin which begets all others in Paul’s analysis- namely, idolatry, which can just as easily, he makes clear just a few verses after the sex talk, take the form of moral superiority and legalistic self-regard as anything prima facie licentious or prurient.

This dialectical relationship between the righteousness of God and the wickedness of humanity is bridged by, wouldn’t you know it, one of the most difficult verses of scripture if you want a clear, literal meaning. God’s righteousness, or justice, is manifested in the most unlikely of ways, justifying humanity “δια πιστεως Ιηδου Χριστου εις παντας και επι παντας τους πιστευοντας.” If you are a Reformed Protestant (or reading a bible translation by and for Reformed Protestants) this string of Greek words might be translated “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” If you’re reading it more literally, it becomes something like “either through faith in Jesus Christ or through the faith of Jesus Christ into all and onto all believers.” So God’s righteousness or God’s justice is affected either by our faith or Jesus’ own faith and that same righteousness or justice is brought about both within us and upon us. Phew!

The precise meaning here is unclear and one of the reasons I want to take us through a thorough review of Romans over the next several weeks I because it takes Paul some time to explicate his own point. It is not, with apologies to my interlocutor on the bus, simple enough for any child to understand.

Paul proceeds to a typological reading of Abraham, in which this great figure is shown to be a prefiguring of the believer in which the former’s faithfulness is revealed as a type of Christian faithfulness. I will over the coming weeks rely on this parallel more explicitly, but (this will give you an idea of where I’m eventually headed with all this) Abraham’s faith did not consist simply of an acknowledgment that the voice commanding him to set off on a dangerous journey was indeed God’s voice, but depended on his actually following the command he was given.

This brings us at last to the fifth chapter of Romans, where it seems to me the whole point of the Gospel Paul means to proclaim becomes clearer. Being justified by faith we have peace with God. But whose faith, Christ’s or ours? Perhaps both, but the faith shown by Jesus himself, dying for us while we were still sinners, surpasses the faith of Abraham, which itself surpasses whatever little faith we manage to show God. The clearer point, it seems to me, is that faith in this context means an awful lot more than simple belief in the same way we believe 1 and 1 makes 2, as I think I’ve said before in this pulpit. What’s more, our justification has yielded peace with God, Paul says, but it has also given us access to grace, or in the Greek, we have been προσαγωγην, or lead to grace, perhaps like being lead to water, but not necessarily made to drink, not necessarily forced to accept that grace. How do we accept it, then. Thank God it’s not all up to us. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, but acceptance may require suffering which leads to endurance which produces character which makes us capable of hope which will not disappoint, but it seems like there are a few needful steps for us to get to that point, doesn’t it?

All of this will, I think, become clearer as we delve deeper into the text over the coming weeks, but I think there is one infinitely important point we can draw from this week’s reading and what precedes it and it is a point which conversations regarding the atonement on both ends of the Protestant-Catholic spectrum often fail to acknowledge. We have, for half a Millennium been so concerned about one view or another of what constitutes a salutary faith on the part of the believer (whether it’s mere belief or faithfulness shown through Christian living or some affective shift in the believer’s heart) that we forget too often and at some peril, who the primary actor in all this is- which is precisely the point I’ve been going on about Christ’s own faith in addition to or even as opposed to our own. Only Jesus was faithful enough to make peace with God on our behalf. Only his one, perfect sacrifice – not prone to an iota of self-interest or grandiosity or scrupulosity, unquestionably pure in motive and substance – could have put things right.

It’s my firm belief that whenever the church has gone wrong in one way or another it’s because we’ve lost sight of this. Now some churches may have problems primarily stemming from how their proclamation of this Gospel is hindered by being completely out of step with reality, not to mention the social implications of the Gospel. I’m thinking specifically of the Southern Baptist Convention, which in their annual meeting last week erupted into chaos because it wasn’t initially obvious to everybody there (members of a church who have struggled with the fact that they were founded in order to oppose the abolition of slavery) that in 2017 they probably finally needed to formally denounce white supremacy. I can only speak for the Episcopal Church here, but I think whatever issues we might have had has very little to do with a lack of relevance along those lines. Rather, when we get into trouble as a national church or as dioceses or parishes, regardless of the presenting issue, it’s usually at its heart because we’ve fallen into the trap of a kind of humanist, social Christianity which preaches, as H. Richard Niebuhr put it, “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

I have relatively frequent conversations with colleagues who struggle mightily with the fact that they perceive certain moves in the larger church or positions held by their superiors to be at odds with that single, central claim. They worry the church has lost it’s way because decisions are made or positions are staked out or programs are embarked on for every reason under the sun besides the fact that Jesus is Lord, yesterday, today, and for ever. They lose heart when the overriding narrative is that salvation is something other than a miraculous state of affairs effected by the will of God for eternal communion with humankind or when church leaders can’t seem to affirm clearly and unreservedly that our Lord really died as a sacrifice for our sins and really rose again to promise us everlasting life. These colleagues run the gamut from high church to low church and from politically conservative to politically liberal. Those issues for them are all secondary to the central message of the Gospel which they see receiving either tepid approval or implicit denial. Why these colleagues come to me with these concerns I don’t know, but I’m glad they feel comfortable enough with me to do so.

The Epistle to the Romans, both the passage we heard this morning and the overriding message we’ll hear over the next several weeks, is the necessary antidote to our own self-obsession, our own desire to be the central actors in history. It reminds us that we were in need of saving and our only hope in this regard has come and saved us. How we respond to that reality is an open question, but thanks be to God that the hope we’ve been given in none other than the Lord of Life will not disappoint us.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.